the trouble of listening

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 1.05.04 PM A bit of context?

When we adopted our son, we gained a sudden sensitivity to the well-intentioned words that manage to nonetheless sucker punch a parent's heart.  Things like, "So that one's adopted, and these are your own?"

In the wake of a miscarriage or divorce, you heard things like, "Well, at least you're can always try again...".

Other times you weren't the one in the difficult shoes, but you were close enough to feel what another human felt when he/she was dismissed, overlooked, humiliated or rebuked, and suddenly you're appalled at all the missing-the-mark things that have come out of your own mouth.

The antidote isn't to stop trying, but to keep coming close and straining your heart & mind toward that of your fellow humans, to really listen, to make small steps toward understanding.  Straining to see & hear God together.

THAT is what it means to love your neighbor.












Love is a pilgrimage through sunlit hills and dreary forests and across roadless deserts, with companions who carry vastly different kinds of luggage and often can't even agree on where to the pitch the tent.

Some of my favorite traveling companions are skeptics, wounded faithful, and unbelievers (cue "All My Favorite People" by Over the Rhine), and right now coming close to them means taking a look around from their vantage point for awhile.  I want to hear them out, and I also want to understand my own perspective in truer context.  So that's what my brain is doing these days, and you know what?  I'm experiencing some frustration.  Spoiler alert: that will likely come out in my poetry, songs, and conversations from time to time.

Sometimes you have to pry yourself out of whatever emotional/intellectual/theological armchair you've gotten so comfy in, if only to cross the room and put your arm around someone you love.



the trouble of listening

(a poem)


I sit in the parked car and listen to the voice of my inner man,

Louder than wind whipping the glass

Louder than the spinning wheels of suburban traffic

More brutal than the signage of strip mall storefronts

So bassy and persistent I can hardly believe passersby aren’t rubbernecking

Wondering at the ruckus

And the lady behind the wheel, still and staring.


Some days I am prisoner and warden,

The man in striped pajamas climbing barbed fences

And the armed guard yanking him back down by the waist of his pants.


Is it okay to admit it? That I sometimes want out?

That I want all mouths, including mine – mostly mine – to shut?

That if I could, I’d take what’s “mine” and leave the rest?


Would it be alright with you if – just for an hour or so - we

Box up the trending phrases and memes

Discard assumptions and studied answers -

Quietly walk by the tracks like we used to do

Knowing they lead


But having no earthly idea where

And not even thinking to ask


Because once

We were there

We were really there

And the grass was dead, the trees leafless

We had no phones or cameras or soundtracks

Only cold Virginia wind

Our own shivered breath

As we killed time,

Lived, together

In the singular, unremarkable moment


Now there is duty

And the backspace button

As if all the world’s salvation hinges

Not on his God-ness

But our goodness.

Not the sound of his voice

But mine.

As if my humanity may accidentally, irresponsibly,

Tumble out,

Remind you of your own.


I’m talking to myself, of course,

The weirdo at the wheel.


I’m neither cynic nor melancholic

But today I hear our chatter through my skeptic brother’s mind

And see through the heavy-lidded eyes of my grieving sister.


What I see are filtered photos and

Smiling pairs of eyes that subtly avoid contact

What I hear are framable arrangements of words

Around well-set tables, with no open chairs


At the moment what I know best is that we know less than we think we do

And may be more terrified of uncertainty than of hell

And that sometimes certainty saves us the trouble of listening.










you CAN do a lot of things...

“You don’t HAVE to do anything, but you CAN do a lot of things.”

She was 16-years-old and said it with a comical grin, referring to my dilemma over whether or not to feel obligated to patch a small hole in my favorite skirt.  She’s a free spirit.

I have never been as free as I want/could/should/will be.

Her hair changes shape and color frequently.  Her opinions are strong, independent and well-supported.  She sees through people and things.  She was intimidating to adults when she was only 14, though she was almost always laughing, smiling, and teasing.

She had no idea that such a small, impromptu comment would linger and replay in my mind over the years. She probably had some idea that I have never really believed it.

What I've really believed is:  “I have to do a lot of things, and I can’t do just anything.”

I'm not talking about thoughtlessly following every impulse without concern for motives or how our choices affect others.  I'm not saying it's a bad idea to seek wise counsel...on things that matter.  In his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson writes:

"Freedom is the freedom to live as persons in love for the sake of God and neighbor..."

But good grief, we put a lot of silly expectations on ourselves (and others) that have nothing to do with love...or anything.  We value things that have no value.

Apparently, I do not need to ask anyone's permission to wear that old skirt or to change my hair.  In fact, no one really cares, not even my husband, who says: "I don't care if your hair is long or short as long as you stop talking about it."

You do not need your friends to agree with your choice in music or college or parenting style.  Go ahead. Do your own thing.

I don’t even have to choose one approach to writing or one genre to work in or one way to interact with people.

I can be free to think my own thoughts without apology, make up my own mind and even CHANGE it later.  We can be free to (gracefully) disagree with each other.

How great is that?

In her song, "Conversations," my friend Sara Groves sings,“The only thing that isn’t meaningless to me is Jesus Christ and the way He set me free…”.

Because of this, I can wear the skirt with the hole and leave it that way.  Or fix it.  Or toss it.  I'm free to not think about it, to not waste a second worrying about what someone might think.

There are very few things that truly matter. Who I am is safely rooted in the fact that God loves me because He loves me.  With all my holes and tears.  As is.  Since that's secure, I have nothing to prove, nothing to earn, nothing to lose.

Because we ARE free; we should act like free people.  You don't HAVE to do anything, but you CAN do a lot of things.


The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973

Last week, my friend gave me a book of poetry by the late Madeleine L'Engle.  She knows I'm a fan of Madeleine, that one of my favorite books, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, came from Ms. L'Engle.  So she gave me this book, which was one of several recently gifted to her, all of which were personally signed by the author.  This one says:

for Gretchen - joy in all weather - Madeleine L'Engle.

Tonight, eve of Christmas Eve, I offer you these words from page 47 of The Weather of the Heart.  May your celebrating be only at a beginning tomorrow, and may each of us risk loving in this coming year.


The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973

This is no time for a child to be born,

With the earth betrayed by war & hate

And a comet slashing the sky to warn

That time runs out &  the sun burns late.


That was no time for a child to be born,

In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;

Honour & truth were trampled by scorn--

Yet here did the Saviour make his home.


When is the time for love to be born?

The inn is full on the planet earth,

And by the comet the sky is torn--

Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.